What is the worst calamity that can befall a person? What agonies
are the most difficult to endure? To find the answer, we need only look
at the plagues that afflicted the Egyptians when they refuse to let the
Jewish people out of bondage.
The Ten Plagues were designed to break down the stubborn
resistance of Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Each successive plague
turned up the pressure another notch or two higher, until Pharaoh, no
longer bear the pain, finally capitulated. The final and most crushing
blow was the death of the firstborn. The runner-up in sheer torture was
the ninth plague, which enveloped Egypt in such a dense, palpable
darkness that all the people were completely immobilized. The agony of
a prisoner in solitary confinement does not compare to the living death
that gripped the benighted Egyptians.
While all the Egyptians were trapped in the darkness, life for the
Jewish people continued as usual. As with all the other plagues, they
were completely impervious to the effects of the catastrophes to which
Egypt was being subjected. And yet, the Torah tells us that during the
plague of darkness “the Jewish people had light in all their dwelling
places.” Why was it necessary to tell us that the Jewish people were
unaffected by the darkness? Furthermore, what is the significance of
their having light in “their dwelling places”? Surely, they enjoyed light
wherever they were.
Earlier in Genesis (28:10), we read that “Jacob departed from
Beersheba and went to Harran.” The Midrash observes that the Torah
finds it appropriate to mention his point of departure in addition to his
destination point. This teaches us that “when a righteous person is in a
city he represents its glory, light and beauty, and when he departs, its
glory, light and beauty are removed.” What is the significance of this
The commentators explain that all too often we do not appreciate
what we have until we lose it. When do people realize that the righteous
person is the glory of his city? When he departs and the glory is
In Egypt as well, the Jewish people did not appreciate fully the
wonderful gift of light until the plague of darkness struck Egypt.
Watching the Egyptians immobilized by the darkness, they were
suddenly extremely grateful that they had light to illuminate their lives.
On a more mystical level, the commentators see darkness and light
as metaphors for the Egyptian and Jewish cultures. Egyptian society,
steeped in superstition, magic and idolatry, was blind to the Presence of
the Creator in the world. It was a place of darkness. The plague of
darkness tapped into the Egyptian way of life and produced a physical
manifestation of the spiritual darkness. And the severity of the plague
was clear proof of the extent to which the spiritual light had been
extinguished in Egypt. The absence of spirituality immobilizes a person
and prevents him from moving forward.
When the Jewish people perceived the spiritual blight of the
Egyptians, they recognized the Presence of the Creator in every grain
of sand, every blade of grass, and this profound faith illuminated their
world. The purity of life in “the Jewish dwellings,” therefore, shone with
a transcendent light that reflected the inner spirituality of the Jewish
A young student was sitting in the back of the classroom and
daydreaming. At the front of the room, the teacher was explaining the
intricacies of a difficult subject, but the student paid no attention. He
was lost in the faraway world of his imagination.
Suddenly, he heard another student speaking louldly and disrupting
the class. The teacher asked the troublemaker to be quiet, but to no
The daydreamer’s interest was piqued. He ears perked up, attuned
to every word that transpired in the classroom. He listened to the
teacher trying to convey important ideas, and he listened with revulsion
as the troublemaker blotted out the teacher’s words with his
How foolish I’ve been, thought the daydreamer. My teacher is
telling us such important things, and I wasn’t paying attention.
Unfortunately, it took the troublemaker’s antics to make me aware of
what I was missing.
In our own lives, we sometimes become so caught up in the hustlke
and bustle of daily life that we lose sight of the deeper truths of life,
of a sense of which things that are important and which are not. But then
when we see the extreme degradation of the society in which we live,
we are snapped back to reality and regain our innate appreciation for
Jewish values and ideals. It is better, of course, never to lose sight in
the first place, not to wait for the darkness of others to inspire us to
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanebaum Education Center.